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The WWU Bomb Threat

The WWU Bomb Threat

A Deep Dive Into What We Knew Then vs. Now 

By Brooklin Painter 

Just before Thanksgiving break, a bomb threat was made against Walla Walla University. The bombs were said to be in backpacks inside the residence halls. The residence halls were evacuated and searched by campus security. No culprit was found and no one was hurt. The case was closed as a false alarm.  

The first campus-wide statement made about the bomb threat was an email from WWU President John McVay 10 days after, stating that WWU Security and the police team searched and cleared the property. No one was hurt and they didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. He then stated that it must have been inconvenient to those staying in the residence halls, but overall, it was an instructive experience for their response teams. He ended the email by writing, “We are taking immediate steps to receive more training and to polish our emergency preparedness tools.” [1] 

Our next source is Lieutenant Robert Benfield from the College Place Police Department. 

On Nov. 20, at 8:57 p.m., an anonymous caller dialed the phone to the police dispatch center as a crime check call. No name was given and the call was unable to be traced according to Benfield. They only know that the voice came from a male, based on the recording they took. 

Benfield stated, “The caller said he was ‘making some sacrifices.’ He said, ‘This is in revenge on society. They alienated me. I am going to blow up this place [Walla Walla University].’” The caller stated that there was a backpack in the residence hall, but did not specify which one. [2] 

The police department immediately took the threat as real. Because of the call, they assumed that the bombs could be in any residence hall. The University’s security was then called to alert them of the threat while the police headed their way. 

Police were called to the scene to try and help keep students safe while under an alarming situation. Photo by Scott Rodgerson. Taken on 12/15/2020. Source: unsplash.com.

At 9:13 p.m., McVay sent an email to the administration to alert them of the oncoming threat. 

Doug Tilstra, the vice president for student life, forwarded the email from McVay, writing, “I am writing you as a core group of the WWU Emergency Management Team to alert you that we have an active bomb threat. Courtney Bryant has just called me to let me know that they are in the process of evacuating the dormitories and assessing the information that is available. When we have a better handle on the precise nature/language of the threat, we may determine that wider communication is needed. Thank you for standing by in the event that we need you.” [3] 

Once the police department arrived at the University, they met with the head of campus security, Courtney Bryant, to coordinate a plan to assess the bomb threat and the safety of students. 

Benfield stated that based on their police policy, they are not allowed to go into the buildings and evacuate people. “It’s private property and especially in the case of dorm living spaces. We would need a search warrant to go in. We can’t go in to tell everyone to leave and then come in and search the place. It violates everyone’s constitutional rights. What we do is rely on the University to make the calls. They have a little more leeway to be able to move people in and out of the way. That decision was up for the University to decide,” commented Benfield. [4] 

The University then decided to move everyone to the church. At this time, the students began to evacuate the buildings.  

Tilstra stated that the protocol set in place for a bomb threat is for campus security to alert the affected area of the campus and then alert McVay, who activates the emergency response team. Next, they evacuate the dorms and make sure not to use the emergency alarm because it could “possibly detonate a bomb,” said Tilstra. The deans were to go door-to-door instead. [5] 

“The fact that police were not allowed into the building to help with evacuation or to conduct the bomb search was new information to all of us in that moment,” said Tilstra. [6] 

Courtney Clark, a sophomore business accounting and finance major, believes the University did a good job of handling the bomb threat. She said, “I think they did as good of a job as they could. They are already short on staff who could help.” [7] 

Madison Coughren, a sophomore nursing major, was headed back to the dorm when she was stopped by a front desk worker. She was told not to go into any of the dorms and to head to the church immediately. 

During this, Coughren said that she heard the worker over the phone mention something about a bomb in the dorms. Once she got to the campus church, she saw that staff members were taking everyone’s names down and placing students inside the church. She felt as if she were a “fish in a barrel” because of how everyone was huddled together in the same place. [8] 

Atheris Seals, a sophomore biology major, gave us their perspective on what information was given at the time. 

The first thing Seals heard From was the deans and security banging on their door and telling them to evacuate to the church immediately—it was not a drill.  

Seals began frantically texting their friends asking what was going on and if they were safe. At first, they thought it was a school shooting since no information was given to the students at the beginning, per police instructions. 

The Collegian confirmed that a few people were not aware of the evacuation while in the dorms. It was not the residence staff’s fault for not clearing the buildings in time. Rather, it was because of the unclear evacuation instructions and unplanned protocols for students to follow. 

There was a great deal of confusion and only rumors going around among the students. While waiting in the church, “I heard someone whisper ‘bomb threat,’” Seals said. “I remember thinking ‘there’s no way, that’s so weird for something like this to happen on campus.'” [9] 

After students evacuated, campus security and the deans went into the buildings to check for any items that looked out of place. The police department’s job was to keep the students safe.  

Tilstra said the deans had to learn how to go about conducting a bomb search and chose to put themselves at risk rather than requesting the resident assistants or student workers help to do the search. They began searching for a bomb and didn’t know whether or not they could be walking into a “live explosion.” [10] 

After being in the church for 40 minutes, the students found out that it was, in fact, a bomb threat. Seals said, “I was definitely concerned throughout it. There wasn’t a lot of information given to the students by any authorities, staff, or administration, which was frustrating.” [11] 

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A positive thing that came from the administration was McVay talking to the students and calming them down while they were in the church.  

Coughren said that McVay was there giving hourly updates and passing out water bottles to the students. However, when students asked what was going on, McVay was only able to give vague responses as to what was happening due to the limited and evolving information. He said that he was working with the local authorities and they were the ones to tell him not to say anything to the students.  

Coughren said, “Them being vague is not their fault. He said that he wanted to tell us what was going on, but it wasn’t his choice in the matter.” [12] 

Once campus security finished their search, there were no bombs found in the buildings. The bomb squad was not called.  

Students went back to their dorms. No culprit was found, and the police department concluded that it was a false threat and left the premises.  

The students were dismissed from the church by McVay and told to keep an eye out for suspicious persons or bags in student areas. Seals “ended up staying in the residence hall area for two days and stayed clear of the other buildings” as they weren’t sure if the buildings were cleared. [13] 

An art piece depicting that no bombs were found in the residence halls. Artwork by Hannah Gillespie.

The only question left is why the bomb threat was made in the first place. Benfield attempted to answer this question by saying, “It could be somebody who is upset with the University or somebody at the University who wanted to cause a disruption. It could be civil disobedience, mental health reasons, it could be lots of things and without knowing who the caller was, it’s pretty hard to figure out exactly what did happen.” [14] 

Coughren said, “I didn’t really think they could do anything else. It was vague and they made us assume the worst.” [15] 

To conclude, Clark said, “It was a panic scenario. I think we should have more drills that have the deans conduct meetings, coordinate with the RAs, and talk about a bomb drill. Being prepared would be good.” [16] 

When The Collegian asked Tilstra about possible developments to the protocol, he said, “We are debriefing the protocol and are in the process of doing so. Our close working relationship with the College Place Police Department has been an asset to campus safety and has just gotten better. We are scheduling new training sessions with them on our campus to target specific areas that need development as a result of this event. We are working with Allied Universal [WWU’s contract partner for Campus Security] on similar plans. We intend to utilize this situation to continue improving the safety on our campus.” [17] 

Tilstra ended by saying, “Another area we are working on is the timeliness and level of communication. During a crisis, all energy is obviously given to addressing the immediate threat. Communication at that moment is focused on coordinating first response efforts. At some point, however, various stakeholders [students, parents, community members, faculty and staff, etc.] deserve appropriate communication. This event has caused us to assess our communication to stakeholders after the immediate crisis moment is past.” [18] 

References 

  1. Email from John McVay, 12/30/2021. 
  1. Interview with Lieutenant Robert Benfield, 1/20/2022. 
  1. McVay’s email from the interview with Doug Tilstra, 1/11/2022. 
  1. Interview with Lieutenant Robert Benfield, 1/20/2022. 
  1. Interview with Doug Tilstra, 1/11/2022. 
  1. Ibid
  1. Interview with Courtney Clark, 2/10/2022. 
  1. Interview with Madison Coughren, 2/10/2022. 
  1. Interview with Atheris Seals, 1/20/2022. 
  1. Interview with Doug Tilstra, 1/11/2022. 
  1. Interview with Atheris Seals, 1/20/2022. 
  1. Interview with Madison Coughren, 2/10/2022. 
  1. Interview with Atheris Seals, 1/20/2022. 
  1. Interview with Lieutenant Robert Benfield, 1/20/2022. 
  1. Interview with Madison Coughren, 2/10/2022. 
  1. Interview with Courtney Clark, 2/10/2022. 
  1. Interview with Doug Tilstra, 1/11/2022. 
  1. Ibid.
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